The Fastest Way to Become Smarter Cover

The Fastest Way to Become Smarter

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. They lit a candle as a symbol of their practice and began. By nightfall on the first day, the candle flickered and then went out.

The first monk said: “Oh, no! The candle is out.”

The second monk said: “We’re not supposed to talk!”

The third monk said: “Why must you two break the silence?”

The fourth monk laughed and said: “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”


95% of all talking covers only two topics:

  • The person whose mouth is open.
  • Stuff that’s outside our control.

The first monk got distracted by an outside event and felt compelled to point it out. He could’ve just re-lit the candle.

The second monk reminded everyone of a rule that had already been broken. He could’ve just kept meditating.

The third monk vented his anger. He could’ve just stayed calm.

The fourth monk got carried away with his ego. He could’ve just enjoyed his success in silence.

What all four have in common is that they shared their thoughts without filtering them, none of which added anything to improve the situation. If there had been a fifth, wiser monk, here’s what he would have done: Remain silent and keep meditating.

In doing so, he would’ve shown each of the other four monks their shortcomings without a single word. The more you talk, the more likely you are to say something stupid. The less you talk, the more you can listen.

Listening leads to learning.

What’s more, when you’re not talking, you have time to observe the situation until you spot the moment when it’s actually important to say something. Only speak when what you say is likely to have a significant, positive impact, for wisdom is cultivated in silence.

The less you speak, the smarter you get. And, maybe not quite coincidentally, the smarter you get, the less you speak.

Minimalism Will Not Make You Happier Cover

Minimalism Will Not Make You Happier

I’ve been a minimalist since 2012. At first it wasn’t a choice. When I moved into my 60 sqft room on a US campus, there simply was no space, regardless of how much or how little I owned. So, for the first few weeks of the exchange program, I lived out of my suitcase.

Shortly after, I found The Minimalists and their 21-day journey. Josh helped his friend Ryan pack up all his stuff, as if he was moving, and then he only unpacked what he needed for three weeks. They learned that we don’t need all that much and that trashing, donating, and selling material possessions doesn’t hurt. To the contrary, it’s often liberating:

“Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.”

From that moment on, I was hooked. “I want freedom,” I thought. And so, to this day, the places I’ve lived in all look somewhat like this:

Some say it’s clean, some say it’s boring, but for me, it’s just normal. Without a doubt, minimalism has added tremendously to my happiness over the years. But not in the way you’d think. It wasn’t the money I made from selling all the excess stuff, nor the money I saved from not buying more.

It wasn’t even the freedom from all the clutter.

Even that only gets you so far.

When Freedom Hurts

One of my favorite ways of learning is to watch people who are 2–5 years ahead of me. What challenges do they face? How do they deal with them? Then, I mentally prepare for their current and my future problems. It doesn’t matter if, when, or how I get there. As long as I’m prepared.

The most fascinating thing I’ve observed so far is what I call ‘the void. It’s the hole people fall into when they achieve financial freedom. Most people never get to the point where they can live indefinitely off the assets they’ve built, so all their lives they’re used to trading the majority of their time for money.

For the few who do, apparently, waking up one morning and realizing they don’t really have to work and don’t owe anyone their time isn’t exactly bliss. It’s scary. Part of the problem seems to be that the tools they used to get there were a means to an end. Once they reach that end and look back, it turns out the means weren’t all that meaningful. Nat Eliason explains:

“As long as I needed an income, it was easy to ignore that I wasn’t working on anything important, but once I stopped needing the money, I had to start asking myself more seriously if that was what I wanted to spend my time on.”

Sometimes, freedom hurts. Free or not, if you fall into the void, you have to claw your way back out. Minimalism is a bit like that. If you only do it so your house is empty, then you might not like what happens once you sit in that empty house.

Maybe that’s why the mega rich sometimes pile up cars, jets, houses, yachts, and lots of other stuff. To counteract the freedom they have. Because it’s too much.

The question, then, is not so much “how do I get more freedom?” It’s about what you’re going to do with that space once you have it.

Room to Think

At the start of the last semester, my roommate came back from his home town, where he’d already done a bit of studying. He wasn’t happy about returning to the study room, where we usually go during the day.

“It’s so narrow and crowded. Back home, our library is huge. If you go to the top floor, you can see the whole city. It has a lot of room. Room to think.”

Remembering all the libraries I’d been in, I agreed I too liked the ones with large, open spaces best, but I didn’t put two and two together. Now I know, it’s also why I like minimalism. Whether you look at a sparsely filled apartment, closet, or contact list, you’re always confronted with the same thing: lots of room.

Room to think.

“What can I do in here?” In my room, I’m limited to sleeping, reading, working, or watching a movie on my laptop. “Who’s the most important person I can call?” “What outfit does this event require?” These are good questions, but without room to ask them, we’ll never come up with good answers.

It’s not just that you can’t walk straight in a room full of clutter. You also can’t think straight.

That’s way more important than freedom.

Bigger Than Happiness

In an over 30-year-old comedy routine, George Carlin talks about our ridiculous obsession with collecting things:

“That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is. Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much god damn stuff, you wouldn’t need a house.”

Like all great comedy, his monologue is hilarious because it’s profoundly true. However, in this last sentence above, he and I disagree. A house with few items can have tremendous value, because it now offers room for lots of other things. Experiences, memories, but most of all room to think.

Who do you want to stick around in your house? Who shouldn’t come back? When you leave your house, what are you tending to? Is it really important?

Minimalism isn’t about being free like a bird, or at least, not just about that. Rather than providing a path to happiness, it creates the space you need to deal with life’s toughest challenges. Physical separation for mental reflection.

Subtracting stuff only matters if you add meaning, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of history’s greatest thinkers led neither very happy, nor very free lives. Like Epictetus, a slave immortalized for the clarity of his mind:

“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”

Something to think about. If you have room for it, that is.

What Is Stoicism? Cover

All You Need to Know About Stoicism in One Table

In a very personal TED talk, Tim Ferriss shares the story of his almost-suicide. Struggling with depression more than the average person, he says he’s spent a great deal of his life finding ways to improve emotional resilience.

The best tool he’s found so far also happens to be the source of his best business decisions, he claims: Stoicism.

Right after, he admits: “That sounds…boring.”

How could something that helped one person both prevent the worst kind of death and make millions be boring?

Yeah…how?

Right Time, Wrong Dress

I chose Latin as my second foreign language in high school when I was 13 years old. It turned out to be a great choice, not just because Latin holds the roots of many European languages, but because of the history education you get alongside those.

In a German book with the translated title Latin Is Dead, Long Live Latin!, author Wilfried Stroh notes:

“Let’s not forget Cicero, the self-made man who turned from humble beginnings to Consul of the Roman Republic. Understanding him and other ancient philosophers, like Lucretius, Seneca, Augustus, and of course poets and historians, that’s why we study Latin, not in order to decorate ourselves with fancy quotes.”

Isn’t this the exact thing we’re trying to do today? Some of the most popular articles online try to help us understand people like Ray Dalio, Taylor Swift, and Elon Musk. Rome’s emperors, poets and philosophers are our modern day billionaires, singers, and hedge fund managers.

We want to decode their way of thinking, their philosophy, for our success. It is no coincidence, then, that many of the people who are building the future use the same, ‘old’ thinking that worked for our ancestors. Their brain software is Stoicism.

However, because of its origins, we don’t look at it that way. Since it’s hidden behind the intimidating curtains of education and history, most of us don’t look at it at all. We hear the right buzz words, like success, wisdom and living a good life, but then words like virtue, fortitude, and providence enter the picture, and we’d rather flip right back to Youtube.

It’s funny. Language is the perfect gateway to this incredible area of study, yet today it might also be the biggest obstacle. We’re scared to read texts written in Old English, let alone learn Latin or Greek, so we miss out.

Hence, when people like Tim call Stoicism “an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments; for making better decisions,” what they’re doing is translating to help us pick up the thread.

It’s always the right time for Stoicism, but it’s always wearing the wrong dress. To the outsider, it looks like a raincoat for a sunny day. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, you can find everything you need to know about Stoicism in a single table.

Three For Three

If only we dare to look just a little closer, we can instantly see that Stoicism is, above all, about simplicity — and a philosophy built around this idea can, by definition, not be complicated.

Take its location of origin, for example, the stoa, which you see in the titular image of this post. Nothing more than a walkway with a roof, it was a place for people to gather and exchange ideas, so the first Stoic, Zeno, just stood up and started talking.

Another one of modernity’s great translators, Ryan Holiday, therefore hits the nail on the head when he says:

“Stoicism is a philosophy designed for the masses, and if it has to be simplified a bit to reach the masses, so be it.”

He promptly delivers on said promise at the end of The Daily Stoic, a collection of quotes from famous Stoics, with the following table:

Simplified a bit from the source.

It contains everything you need to know. Everything. Let’s break it down, starting with the labels.

The blue, left column contains, bottom to top, the three parts of the self, which determine how you navigate your life.

  1. First, you perceive the world and its events, which prompts you to desire certain outcomes while wanting to avoid others.
  2. Second, those two prompt you to want to act in certain ways, while refusing to do other things.
  3. Third, whether your will allows or rejects any given impulse determines what you’ll actually end up doing.

The idea is that the better you get at perceiving the world, the faster you become at cataloguing impulses, which, in turn, makes it easier to give in to the right ones and block the rest.

While Ryan described these three elements extensively in The Obstacle Is The Way, the main takeaway here is that everything — everything — starts with perception.

Moving to the green, top row, left to right, we see the Stoics’ three disciplines that shape our perception, action and will.

  1. First, we must study and learn more about the world and our place in it. Which events can we influence? What’s best for the common good? And, most importantly, what is true?
  2. Second, this learning enables us to practice certain behaviors and character traits, like duty, taking initiative and good judgment.
  3. Lastly, by practicing these things we receive excellent training in the highest goods of the Stoics: discipline, justice, courage, and wisdom.

Once again, while this is technically a chain to work through, it is important to remember that all it takes for the rippling effect to kick in is to start studying.

One Question Is Enough

So far, we learned that good will and good action start with clear perception. Proper practice and training are the consequence of study. As a result, we get a singular starting point for becoming Stoics: studying our perception.

If the goal is to move up and to the right, towards wisdom, then the place to start is at the bottom left, in the realm of physics.

Therefore, you really only need to do one thing to become a Stoic: Learn to recognize what’s in your control and what’s not. Sure, there are specific habits to practice and more to find out, but if you intently focus on this one aspect, the rest will follow.

Epictetus, another famous Stoic, confirms:

“Of these areas, the chief and most urgent is the first which has to do with the passions, for strong emotions arise only when we fail in our desires and aversions.”

Hence, again and again, Stoicism comes down to a single question:

“What do I control here?”

Imagine you looked at every situation in life that way. The weather, annoying people, your mood, frustrations at work, unlucky, even disastrous events, it’d all spin around you like moons orbiting a planet — they’re there, but you don’t mind them. Effort, goodwill and hope, on the other hand, will be at an all-time high. After all, these are fully within your control.

That doesn’t sound boring at all, does it?

What Philosophy Is Really For

Further selling Stoicism to the audience, Tim says it “decreases emotional reactivity, which can be a superpower.” Given it could save a student from suicide as much as it could keep an NBA star from losing his temper, he claims the stakes are very, very high.

But there’s more to Stoicism. A bigger end game. Something…simpler.

Think back to your happiest moments in life. What went through your head, if anything? Who were you with? What did you do or had just achieved? Chances are, they were like listening to a Stoic talk on a sunny porch: simple.

Happiness is rarely the result of pulling off complex schemes. It’s raw, like the events that precede it. Kissing the love of your life, knocking out a great stretch of work, sitting in the grass, feeling the wind.

This is something even fewer people understand about Stoicism than its simplicity: It’s a philosophy of happiness.

It might be just a side effect, but it’s a profound one nonetheless. That’s why it’s no surprise that Tim ends his talk on a note sent to him by one of his most treasured mentors:

“I could not imagine a life more beautiful than that of a Stoic.” – Jerzy Gregorek